After a hefty helping of anticipation, Orange Is the New Black season two dropped last week. Despite my standing as an unapologetic contrarian who successfully avoided season one, I watched the first two episodes of the new batch. All the enormously positive reviews, never-ending stream of think pieces, and eye-catching advertising finally wore me down. The peer pressure didn't hurt, either. Never again do I want to hear someone ask me if I've seen Orange Is the New Black because he or she will think I'll like it. You were right. I liked it. Now leave me alone and go bother some other poor sap. Take yet another scalp for your collection. You've earned it.
Considering how often I hear about the show in real life and on social media sites, and that when I see the acronym "OITNB" I now know immediately what it means, it stands to reason that the show is very, very popular. That's a total shot in the dark guess, because Netflix refuses to release any viewership data. Despite media outlets anxiously entreating Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and CCO Ted Sarandos to spill the proverbial beans, they have not budged. Grantland TV critic Andy Greenwald said Netflix "stubbornly refuses to release any specific viewership data, but the company was sufficiently shocked by Orange’s quietly mushrooming numbers to admit it had become the most-watched series on its servers."
That seemingly innocuous quote came from the beginning of a fawning review of the new season of OITNB that contained more praiseworthy language than a Southern Baptist tent revival. The Hollywood Reporter also called Netflix "stubborn" for its policy in an article about House of Cards. Viewership is—as Netflix constantly reminds reporters—irrelevant to a service that people pay for up front.
But when even local news stations in Wisconsin report theatrical box-office numbers like they're Midwestern Nikki Finkes, the desire to know is more important than the actual need to know. Does a used car salesman in St. Louis need to know that Edge of Tomorrow bombed? Definitely not, but it does influence his opinion of the movie, even if he hasn't seen it. What TV critics don't realize is that by haranguing Netflix to release ratings and play by the old rules, they're completely undercutting their own power to influence the future of the medium.
Historically, the television industry has profited almost exclusively via an advertisement-based model. Thirty-second commercials are peppered through your favorite broadcast and basic cable program in order to pay for all that cocaine at the wrap party. The more viewers a show has, the more expensive it is for a company to buy a commercial, which means more of that sweet, sweet nose candy for the producers. Because of that, most of what was on television had to be broad, easy to understand, and capable of appealing to a wide cross section of the population in order to attract the most viewers so that networks could jack up ad rates (and buy more blow).
In 1970, the winner for Best Drama Series at the Primetime Emmy Awards was Marcus Welby, MD. If you know Marcus Welby, MD, and have seen an entire episode all the way through, then I ask you, how did you find this website and why did your nursing home IT department not block it? There are boobies on this site. Lots of them.
Go ahead and look while you can. I won't be mad.
OK, for the rest of you, Marcus Welby, MD, was about an MD named Marcus Welby. Welby's major character flaw was he was just too fucking nice, which is a classic Shakespearean trope and natural wellspring for drama. This shit was cutting-edge in 1970, and it was the most popular television program in America. Let's say hypothetically speaking that critics of the period preferred fellow ABC stablemate Dan August, starring a young Burt Reynolds. Dan August was about a cop named Dan August whose major character flaw was that he was just too fucking cool. Nobody would have cared what critics thought, because it wasn't as popular as Marcus Welby, MD. Dan August got canceled after a season, even though Burt was about to become the biggest movie star in the country in a few years.
The Television Critics Association didn't even have their own awards until 1985. Being a TV critic made about as much sense as writing detailed recaps of Sunday newspaper comic strips. I don't know about you, but regardless of what Beetle Bailey or the A-Team was up to in a given week, it usually wasn't worth writing 2,000 words about. TV was a distraction from life, not a reason to live.
Then, cable TV appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s. HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, and other channels were subscription-based services—a novelty for the medium. There were no ads, because all that cocaine was paid for by the monthly fee required to access the content. For a while, these channels exclusively showed movies, but then they started dabbling in original content. There was a ton of softcore porn, a few middling sitcoms, too much Robert Wuhl, and not enough Crypt Keeper. HBO's OZ, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City were the first shows that would be considered on par with today's "Golden Age of TV." You had to pay attention, and you also had to watch the shows in order to even understand them.
Ratings didn't matter: Because with a subscription model, the cocaine was already paid for. Plus, syndication and DVD sales became potent secondary revenue streams. It was more important that a pay cable TV show be good, win awards, cultivate "buzz," and create a passionate fanbase that would come back for more and more than for it to get a large audience right out of the gate. Ad-based cable channels followed suit and nurtured middlingly popular but excellent shows like Breaking Bad until the world got hip to them.
TV used to be a distraction, but now, if you aren't watching a critically acclaimed show, you're some kind of goddamn leper. I watched five seasons of Breaking Bad in two weeks so that I wouldn't be chastised during the series-finale hysteria. As good as that show is, no one should be up at 3 AM watching Breaking Bad unless they have some kind of medical condition.
This sort of social pressure used to be confined to the water cooler of your average American office dungeon. In 2014, the "water cooler" isn't a literal place to meet to talk about who shot J. R., or the newest episodes of Twin Peaks and Dynasty. Now it's fucking everywhere. With the advent of video on demand and online streaming, you have no excuse to not watch a critically acclaimed TV show except for having an actual life outside of your living room.
The medium of television is so popular that college graduates are paid to write summaries of episodes as soon as they're over. Vanity Fair's James Wolcott wrote a piece in their last issue about the obsessive nature of today's modern TV watcher, beatifying not just the exalted show runner but also the crazy fan who just can't get enough. These sophisticated, modern updates on the book report are some of the most popular pieces of content on the internet.
Our culture has developed a television-industrial complex: a voluminous universe of recaps, precaps, reviews, memes, tweets, slash fiction, response videos, GIFs, and think pieces that fill the spaces between episodes and seasons of our favorite programs. Once episode nine of Game of Thrones season four is over, what are you going to do, go to bed? Talk to your spouse? Call your mom? Put your dishes away? Learn a new language? Fuck no. You're going to see what other fans thought of the episode, while simultaneously crafting your reaction to the crazy/violent/shocking/awesome/disturbing/erotic/potentially sexist thing you just watched. Then you'll do it all over again the next week.
In an ecosystem where customers pay a monthly fee just for the right to consider watching a TV show, and someone's claim to fame can be writing parody versions of the Game of Thrones theme song, why should I care how many people watched Orange Is the New Black the first night it was available? If all that mattered was a number or a piece of "Big Data," would as many people care about how much Andy Greenwald loves OITNB? Critics finally wrested control of television away from focus groups, advertisers, and lonely drunks. HBO revived The Comeback—a show even the most pretentious among us ignored—because it developed a large cult audience of comedy nerds and critics.
You won, and now you want to surrender the trophy to the bean counters, because... why? I honestly don't know. It might just be that obsession requires validation. Game of Thrones has to be the most popular show ever on HBO to justify all the blogging and hand-wringing. If Orange Is the New Black doesn't average 10 million viewers an episode, it can't be the barrier-breaking cultural phenomenon we're all claiming it is.
We're all still nerds, and we demand for our opinions to be proven objectively correct. Unfortunately for us dweebs, TV is more of an art form than ever, and real art defies objectivity. So, in that spirit, I implore you: Keep your fucking numbers and graphs away from my stories.
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